Van Duncan swept to victory in the Buncombe County sheriff’s race, outpacing incumbent Sheriff Bobby Medford by 14,651 votes — almost 20 percent of the nearly 77,000 votes cast.
Voter turnout for the Nov. 7 election was substantially higher than in 2002, but it didn’t help Medford. Although almost 14,000 more votes were cast in this year’s sheriff’s race, his final tally fell from 37,500 to 31,000. All told, the incumbent prevailed in only 13 precincts, after winning 51 of 75 precincts four years ago. A startling, double-digit increase in voter registration reported by the Buncombe County Board of Elections in the run up to the 2004 general election may also have influenced this year’s results.
In three Asheville precincts — the 1st, 2nd and 3rd — virtually an identical number of voters supported each party’s candidate as they had in the 2002 election. Meanwhile, in the sheriff’s former strongholds — Fairview, Flat Creek, Leicester, Limestone and West Buncombe — his popularity plummeted. Whereas Medford outpolled his 2002 rival, Mike Ruby, by more than a 2-1 ratio in Leicester and Limestone, Duncan pulled even or ahead in all six of those two townships’ precincts. The same was true in Fairview, where Medford had enjoyed a 3-1 advantage four years ago.
Although there were clear differences in the candidates’ style — Duncan advocating training and number crunching versus Medford’s folksy, good-old-boy approach — a series of mistakes and mishaps may have disheartened Medford’s base. The death of Sgt. Jeff Hewitt, an Oakley resident gunned down while serving a warrant in Limestone in April 2004, was laid at Medford’s feet by some who criticized his staffing decisions. (Oakley, a dead heat in 2002, went for Duncan by a 2-1 margin.) Then, last July, 17-year-old Terry Jackson Evans was gunned down in Poor Man’s Hollow in Leicester by a deputy responding to a suicide call — a death Evans’ family and friends attributed to the Sheriff’s Department’s failure to provide training in how to deal with such situations.
Duncan has steered clear of criticizing Medford’s handling of these two incidents, saying he is satisfied with the SBI investigation that found no wrongdoing in connection with Evans’ death. “I think what made the difference in the election,” Duncan said two days later, “were service issues. There have been slow response times in Fairview, Leicester, Broad River and Barnardsville, and there was a problem successfully handling a rash of break-ins in Leicester and Fairview.”
Asked if he foresees problems implementing the substantial changes he proposed during his campaign, Duncan told Xpress, “I think the administrative people recognize that there are going to be changes and that I need to bring in some people who understand what I want to do.” Then he added, “I think most of the regular staff will be comfortable with the changes — in fact, many are looking forward to them.”
The new sheriff will take office in early December. But one change is already apparent. The outgoing sheriff had often refused to respond to queries from Xpress reporters, referring them to either his or his department’s legal counsel. But Duncan told this reporter: “Phone me or drop in anytime. My door will always be open.”